Working scientifically


‘Working scientifically’ involves the processes of science, including understanding the sorts of questions that are the province of science; the design of experiments; reasoning and arguing with scientific evidence; and analysing and interpreting data.

Detailed discussion of working scientifically in primary schools can be found in Keith Skamp’s Teaching primary science constructively (Thomson Learning 2004). An example of the forms of knowledge associated with working scientifically can be found in the Victorian Curriculum and Standards Framework (CSF) for science, which can be found on the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority website.

Key concepts of working scientifically

The activities in this topic are designed to explore the following key concepts:

  • ‘Working scientifically’ involves particular forms of reasoning with evidence that is different in detail from reasoning in other areas.
  • There is no one ‘scientific method’, but many ways in which scientists plan to establish ideas and generate evidence to explore and support these ideas.
  • An oft-cited example of scientific method is the controlled experiment, where the relationship between an effect and a variable is explored, with other potentially confounding variables controlled (i.e. kept the same). An example would be the exploration of the effect of the length of a pendulum on its period of swing, keeping the weight and swing size the same but varying the length and timing of the swing. However, for many branches of science, this type of control is not possible. For instance, in studying ecological systems, in many cases theories must be established by looking at existing ecosystems with many variables. In geology and astronomy the idea of controlling and repeating observations is very different. What is common to all these areas, however, is the collection of evidence to support or argue against claims, and reasoning with evidence that attempts to isolate clear causes for phenomena.
  • Working scientifically involves a number of ‘concepts of evidence’, including the purpose and techniques of focused observation, the recognition of a scientific question that can be investigated, the need for repeat measurements and skills in devising measurement processes, ways of recording data (these can vary considerably) and representing data for analysis, different experimental designs and associated principles (e.g. understanding ‘sample size’ in making observations in the field), and reporting.

Students' alternative conceptions of working scientifically

Research into students' ideas about this topic has identified the following non-scientific conceptions:

  • Students will not immediately see the task of an investigation as exploring ideas or looking for patterns, but will treat an investigation simply as 'establishing what is' without thought for considering alternative interpretations.
  • Students have problems recognising what is an investigable question and will propose questions such as 'What is electricity?' as the basis for investigation. Their questions need to be worked with and clarified to become amenable to scientific investigation.
  • Students will not understand many of the concepts relating to measurement-for instance, the reading of a scale, the recording of comparison measurements using consistent processes, the calibration of instruments, the need for repeat measurements and the concept of uncertainty in measurement. They need to be supported in making defensible measurements.
  • Students can understand the need to control variables in simple situations (to make the test 'fair'), such as the need to use the same amount of each type of sugar when comparing the solubility of sugars. However, they have difficulty in cases of interacting variables (e.g. finding out the separate effects of weight and length on a pendulum swing, or the separate effect of light and moisture in determining where slaters prefer to live).
  • Students will not understand the power of laying out data in tables and graphs, and the use of a table as a design organiser to help plan a series of measurements.
  • Depending on their knowledge and experience, students may have trouble arguing clearly from evidence.

It has been amply demonstrated that, with appropriate support, even very young children are capable of distinguishing between observations and inferences, of asking investigable questions, planning experiments and arguing from evidence.

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